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Oilman on Trial in Iraq Conspiracy Case

AP | September 10, 2007
LARRY NEUMEISTER

NEW YORK - Prosecutors told a jury Monday that Oscar S. Wyatt Jr. was a greedy businessman who paid millions in kickbacks to Saddam Hussein's regime for lucrative oil contracts.

His lawyer countered that Wyatt was a law-abiding World War II veteran who had been an adviser to several former U.S. presidents but had clashed with the Bush family.

Wyatt, 83, is accused of secretly obtaining oil from Iraq in the 1990s after Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the Gulf War led to sanctions meant to isolate Iraq from the rest of the world. If convicted, he could face more than 60 years in prison.

"When the world imposed sanctions on Iraq, Oscar Wyatt stepped up to help them evade sanctions," Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Miller told jurors in his opening statement Monday.

He said two former Iraqi oil officials would be among witnesses at the Texas oil man's conspiracy trial and they would explain how Wyatt managed to get oil when others could not.

The U.N. oil-for-food program, set up to finance Iraqi imports of necessities, became corrupted in 2000 when Iraqi officials began demanding illegal surcharges in return for contracts to buy Iraqi oil.

Miller said Wyatt paid millions of dollars in surcharges to Iraq, part of hundreds of millions of dollars that Iraqi leadership collected illegally that should have gone to humanitarian needs.

Defense attorney Gerald Shargel described Wyatt as a World War II hero who grew up poor but turned an $800 investment in an oil company into one of the nation's largest oil refinery businesses. He attacked the corrupt nature of the oil-for-food program, flawed U.S. policy toward Iraq and the dependence of Americans on Middle East oil.

"Oscar Wyatt did not pay any surcharge to the Iraqis," Shargel said. "Oscar Wyatt did not break the law."

He said Wyatt became known for his contacts in the Middle East, especially in Iraq, and providing information about his visits there to a U.S. agency, which he did not identify, in the 1980s.

Wyatt was a friend of President Kennedy, a close friend of fellow Texan, President Lyndon Johnson, and on friendly terms with presidents Reagan, Nixon and Clinton.

Shargel said Wyatt clashed with the Bush administration, though, opposing the U.S. decision to go to war in 2003, and did not get along well with the Bush family.

"Time and time again, he showed his loyalty to this country," Shargel said. "His heart was an American heart. His loyalty was to the United States. His patriotism was unwavering."

Wyatt has been free on bail since he was charged with conspiring with others to gain favored status for oil contracts by providing money and equipment to the former government of Iraq from 1994 until March 2003.

The trial is expected to last four to six weeks.

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